Synthetic peptides, predicted from the nucleotide sequence of the S gene of hepatitis B virus were analyzed in terms of the established specificities of the hepatitis B surface antigen. The analysis indicated that the group-specific alpha antigen is composed of at least three nonoverlapping sequences and that a relatively hydrophilic region of the surface antigen protein, spanning amino acid residues 110-137, specifies the major d and y subtype system. The d/y subtype appears to depend on changes in one or more variable amino acids at positions 127, 131, and 134 of the hepatitis B surface antigen protein. Peptide 49 (consisting of amino acid sequences of the y subtype for the region 110-137), coupled to a carrier protein and mixed with an adjuvant, stimulated a brisk anti-y response in chimpanzees, the relevant model of human response to hepatitis B virus immunization and infection. Experimental challenge with homologous hepatitis B virus resulted in a pattern of partial protection. The results offer promise for the application of chemically synthesized peptides as vaccines in the prophylaxis of hepatitis B virus disease.